Biographical notes

From Karl Polanyi
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From Karl Polanyi

I understand, you are looking into influences that have shaped what is beginning to be called economic sociology. If research into the shifting places occupied by economies in societies deserve that name, I agree that some of my own efforts in the field of economic history may be comprised under that term.

[42] The development of a world of thought may be presented in two different ways: either chronologically, or in the obverse direction, by following the essentials of the system back to their origins. The first, the chronologically, …

The first, the chronological sequence may be inappropriate when the growth of the thought spread over a tortuous and discontinuous course, of several decades human affairs. In these last sixty years we experienced the dialectics of radical breaks, unmediated contradictions, and repeated returns to already discarded positions which make it difficult, if not impossible, to discern the underlying logic of advance.

The other way, as I said, of clarifying thought is to trace it back from the completed pattern to the origins of the separate stranda.[1] In the middle of the twentieth century, where a variety of valuations caused a veritable ideational vortex, two existential polarities attracted the minds. Personality expressed itself in the manner in which this duality shaped thinking: fast and value, empiry and normativity, society and community, science and religion. The directions themselves oscillated as they were being test [43] by life, thought and history. Yet in the retrospect it appears this polarity formed the permanent axis of my world of thought.

The prophetic writer who in the beginning of the last century discovered the machine and society was Robert Owen. He did not turn against the machine, yet proclaimed that great institutional changes were needed if we were to avoid great calamities from its unchecked employment. These thoughts which developed in the second decade of the nineteenth century sprang from the industrial revolution in England and the wretched “condition of the poor”. Apart from the consumers’ co-operatives and the vital stimulus they offered to the trade union movement, Owen’s activities bore no practical fruit, but the philosopher of British socialism owed everything to him. Also, of the “utopian” thinkers of the early nineteenth century, he was the one to have exercised a great influence on Karl Marx. Like Owen himself, Marx never ceased to demand the perfectioning of the industrial society as an instrument of human advance towards ideal ends. From whatever angle we approach the theme, we find their values polarized as efficiency and humanity; technological and social progress; institutional requirements and personal needs.

Such a parallel is, of course, not meant to be substantiated through detailed evidence. It assumes a close knowledge of Owen’s various plans for “Village of Union” and the young Marx’ philosophical essays on economic and political subjects.

It was particularly on the issue of the organization of the economy that Owen and Marx diverged most strongly. A centralized economy run by the State was quite foreign to Robert Owen’s monde who considered the market system as the natural form of man’s livelihood; Karl Marx thought of the future of industrial civilization in terms of the supersession of the market economy by a socialized economy.

[44] Nevertheless, both built their thought structures on the reality of society, and the conviction that the future of man depends on his adapting his institutions radically to the nature of the machine within the limits of the laws governing real social existence.

Economic sociology centers on the study of the shifting place occupied by the economy in society. Economic anthropology and economic history require in this regard a clear concept of the economy which theoretical analysis did not provide. It conceived of the economy since Menger, 1871, allocating of scarce means. This concept, however, is unrelated to the organization of society on the one hand, the movements of the material means that make up the economic process, on the other. A different concept of the economy is required for the researching into the questions arising for the disciplines of anthropology and history in dealing with the economy. Such a concept must offer pointers in two directions; how to relate economies to the societies, and how to adapt the substantive model of the economy to the movements that make up production and distribution. The embeddedness of the economy in economic and non-economic institutions is a concept which permits a transcending of an industrial civilization through a deliberate subordinating of the economy a means to the ends of the human community.

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[45] K.P. was born in 1886 from middle-class parents. He read Law at the University of Budapest, which he had to leave on account of his socialist activities and the organization of pro-Pikler demonstrations. At 22 he left the social-democratic and founded the radical student circle “Galileo” on broad progressive lines. His earlier Marxist tenets had undergone a change. In 1918 he joined Oscar Jászi’s radical Party. In 1919 he left Hungary for Austria, where he attached himself to the religious socialist movement. He was Foreign Editor of the liberal weekly “The Austrian Economist” from 1924 to 1934, when socialist Vienna succumbed to Heimwehr Fascism. He emigrated to England where he was among the founders of the Christian Left. Since 1937 he belonged to the Workers’ Educational Association, lecturing on economic history under the Extra-Mural Delegacies of Oxford and of London. From 1943 to 1946 he was associated with Count Michael Károly’s movement in exile. He was Visiting Professor of Economics at Columbia University from 1947 to 1953. His main works are a study on Socialist Accountancy” in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft, Heidelberg (1922); Co-editor, Christianity and the Social Revolution, London (1936) (‘Essence of fascism’); The Great Transformation, New York (1944); Co-editor, Trade and Market in the Early Empires, Glencoe, Ill. (1957) (‘Marketless trade in Hammurabi’s time; ‘Aristotle discovers the economy’; ‘The economy as instituted process’).

Editor's Note

  1. Here six lines of crossed text.

Text Informations

Text: these biographical notes are sent to Kari Polanyi-Levitt, 2 December 1962
KPA: 59/02, 42-45